Friday, November 14, 2008

A Bunch of Book Reviews

I had a sleepless night the other night, a perfect time to gather together a bunch of short reviews from Facebook, maybe tidy them a little, and repost them here in a somewhat more organized fashion.

'Cause, you know, for a blog by a Bookwyrme, this doesn't have a whole lot of reviews.


So, without further ado, and in only a slightly organized fashion, the reviews follow:

Chalice by Robin Mckinley It finally came into the library! I always wait eagerly for Mckinley's new books, and this was no exception.

I still think her best writing was pre-Spindle's End, with Sunshine being a welcome upswing, but that's not to say the later books aren't good: They're still marvels, just not as marvelous as they could be.

Chalice fits that evaluation. Overall, it is a good book. The basic setting and concept are fascinating, with the Chalice and her honey magic. In fact, the world and the magic system are the clear stars of this one. I think it could have done with being just a bit longer to develop things more--not something I say often about books. There needed to be just a bit more attention to the interpersonal relationships, just a little more explanation of what was going on with the magic. Just... a bit more. I devoured it in one night's sitting, though, so don't take the caveats too seriously.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling: I love these rhythmic, graceful, and deceptively simple stories. I strongly recommend listening to these as recordings or getting someone to read them to you. I've read them to myself before, but they really are meant to be read aloud, and listening adds a new level of appreciation. The Librivox recording, (I listened to version 2) is not up to the best professional standards, but still very good and worth putting on your MP3 player.

The Seventh Tower Series (The Fall, Castle, Aenir, Above the Veil, Into Battle, The Violet Keystone). I picked these up after reading the Keys to the Kingdom series. I found them to be decently written and plotted, but not spectacular. They are written almost entirely in short, declarative sentences that never let me forget that this was written for kids. Nix also sets up a complicated, four-group set of conflicts and resolves three of them, quite tidily a little too tidily for my tastes) but leaves the fourth to dangle with a brief "no one really knows how it started" comment. Since members of the fourth group have been represented as part of the general struggle, the oversight is distressing. Also, Lucas Arts either planned to release or did release a card game with this--the markers for such a commercial tie-in are all there (badly named beasts and obtrusive mentions of the game add inopportune moments included). Fun, quick, brainless reads but not ones to give to all your friends and relations, no matter what their ages happen to be.

The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix (Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday). These are well-written and well-plotted and have a likable central character, a good supporting cast, and more than on thorny dilemma. The difficulties are both immediate and long-term and challenge those involved both morally and practically. The tension mounts satisfactorily as the books continue. I'm looking forward to Sir Sunday, the concluding book of the series.

Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke. This is another book I'd been looking forward to. I thoroughly enjoyed Inkheart and Inkspell, but I am afraid Inkdeath was something of a letdown. It wasn't a bad book, but it was a long book and the plotting was not as tight as it should have been; instead of feeling a mounting tension as difficulties increased, I found myself impatiently skimming as stuff just kept happening without a clear central thread pulling it together. Also, I have to admit I had forgotten who some of the characters were and I didn't end up wanting to read the other two books again to reacquaint myself with them.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: I remembered this book as being good and decided to reread it. It is magnificent, better than I remembered, a dark, tangled mystery with plenty of drama, characters to love, and a standout villain.

Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: I had forgotten how much I like this one. I started listening to the librivox version and ended up leapfrogging between recording and text because I did not want to switch books the way I normally do.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins: Not quite as gripping as Woman in White--one is more aware of strings being pulled to make things happen-and the cast of characters as a whole is not as strong as in Woman in White or Moonstone, but still quite a good read, and has an a great heroine/villain who completely steals the last several chapters, as she should.

No Thoroughfare by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens: I had fun listening to this one and trying to guess which bits were Dickens' idea (the veiled woman at the beginning seems a good bet) and which were Collins' (Maguerite's climb down the cliff, I think). Otherwise, it's a fairly typical and predictable blend of the two. Fun, but not the best of either.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: Some of you may remember the countdown I had in the margin of this blog. Yes, I really was looking forward to it that much, and it was every bit worth the wait. It is brilliant. Sharp, spooky, and haunting in the best way. There are elements familiar from The Jungle Book, retold and remade into a new and wonderful form.

McKean's pictures are an important part of the story, incorporated into the whole in a way unusual to novels, and I hope to goodness that all the versions include them.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling: Having read The Graveyard Book, I had to revisit this one, and did so courtesy of a librivox recording. It is a classic for good reason. It's more ambivalent and haunting than The Graveyard Book with Mowgli stuck between two worlds far harsher than those Bod faces.

And then there are the short stories I am constantly forgetting are part of the tale, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi especially deserves notice.

Tarzan of the Apes and The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Well, I just finished two "raised outside of human society" books, why not reread the other famous example?

The Tarzan books are pulp, pure and simple. Burroughs is racist, sexist, and classist, and his plots don't thicken, they congeal into oddly shaped lumps. Sailors exist to mutiny, islands are desolate, all cats are man eaters, and everyone lusts after Jane.

And, guess what? I still enjoy them. I find myself obligingly tensing up for the cliffhangers, and I've still downloaded A Princess of Mars to listen to--partly, I must add, due to some nostalgia. I used to own the series and a good many of the Tarzan books, first reading them when I was eight or nine years old, after my dad brought home a box of paperbacks picked up at a garage sale. Don't expect anything like the grace and beauty of The Jungle Book or the subtle creepiness of The Graveyard Book, but go ahead and give them a try.

Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers by Daniel Leader and Lauren Chattman: Worth checking out from the library and looking through but not worth buying or making a special hunt for. Most of the breads in here are white breads, and I almost never make white bread, so I won't be using them much.

I did find the instructions for making sourdough starter quite helpful, however. Thanks to Leader and Chattman I have a working sourdough starter in my fridge for the first time in a couple of years. The most helpful bit of advice was to use filtered water for the first few days of the starter's life so as not to overwhelm the beginning culture with the minerals and chlorine of regular city water. After that, it's ok to switch.

Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top by Jerry Langton: I ended up giving up on this one. I enjoyed Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, ,so I expected to like this one. However, it proved to go for the "aren't rats gross" angle more than the "aren't rats interesting" slant, and it turned out to be Too Much Information. About a third of the way through, I chose blissful ignorance and closed the book.

Paper People by Michael Grater: Interesting and fun, full of lots of neat projects I'll have to try when I dig myself out from my current collection.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne: An extraordinary, extravagant travel full of adventure, misadventure, and money.

From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon by Jules Verne: These are boring, there's no other way of putting it. About 2/3 of the way through From the Earth to the Moon, when they decide to send people to the moon and not just a projectile, the story starts to take off a bit, but there's no central eccentric like Phileas Fogg to enliven matters and no enigmatic genius like Captain Nemo to hold anyone's attention. I finished them because I started them, and I can't suggest anyone else try the experiment

Od Magicby Patricia McKillip. I just went through a McKillip reread, and I have to say again, I love this one. McKillip is one author whose books I read and reread. this one is one of her best, shimmery, beautiful, and full of magic.

As a side, I really, really wish someone would make audio recordings of McKillip's work. The language just begs to be read aloud, and I want to hear it.

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip. A new book this year. It is beautiful and evocative, like all her work, but not as good as, say Od Magic or Tower at Stony Wood. About half the characters get sidelined at the end while a character whose point of view we never see takes care of matters, and the story-within-a-story doesn't tie as well into the whole as I would have liked. Still splendid, though, and one I will read again, probably many times

Superdoveby Courtney Humphries: I found this a good, solid, and interesting read. Humphries does a good job of giving us the history of pigeons and provides interesting, though brief, discussions on the question of what is "natural" and what is not--and why we make the distinctions we do.

There. Reviews done (for today). Time to go bake brownies and listen to more of John Carter's adventures in A Princess of Mars.

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